Abraham Lincoln Portraits

Nashville Symphony; Leonard Slatkin

Naxos  8.589373-74

Lincoln Portraits

Abraham Lincoln looms monolithically large in America’s cultural lexicon.    Abraham Lincoln Portraits,  a double disc set on the Naxos imprint, collects a number of the musical responses to Lincoln’s legacy. The biggies are here; the Nashville Symphony and Chorus make a terrific gale of sound on the oddly eloquent cacophony of Charles Ives’s  Lincoln the Great Commoner.  Narrator Barry Scott is suitably sepulchral, poised amid the orchestral swells of Aaron Copland’s  Lincoln Portrait.

Lesser known works are also featured. Scott again is an able speaker on Vincent Persichetti’s  A Lincoln Address.  The Persichetti is no match for the Copland in terms of overt appeal, but it features stirring interludes dense with flurried counterpoint and artfully crafted extended tonal harmonies. Using excerpts from Lincoln’s second inaugural address as its text, it contains a considerably poignant narrative. Ironically, Lincoln’s words also proved to be a controversial part of the work’s performance history. Written in 1973,  A Lincoln Address  was commissioned for Nixon’s second inaugural. The event’s planning committee ultimately rejected the work, supposedly for excerpting remarks by Lincoln that could be interpreted as bolstering the antiwar movement’s protests over US actions in Vietnam!

Written in 1941, Morton Gould’s  Lincoln Legend  is an excellent example of the midcentury Americana style, interweaving Civil War-era tunes into an effusive, flashily orchestrated medley.  Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,  by Roy Harris, is a supple, subtle chamber work that receives a lustrous, detailed reading from mezzo-soprano Sharon Mabry, violinist Mary Kathryn Van Osdale, cellist Anthony LaMarchina, and pianist Roger Wiesmeyer.  It combines the muscularity of Harris’s symphonic music with a more intimate, Impressionist harmonic palette.

Ernst Bacon’s serviceable, quasi-programmatic  Ford’s Theatre – A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865  is a group of seven, cinema-worthy vignettes dealing with the circumstances surrounding Lincoln’s assassination. George Frederick McKay’s  To a Liberator: a Lincoln Tribute  smacks of scene-setting as well. More meditative in tone, it includes lush choral writing. But of the rarities uncovered on this well-curated compilation, most impressive is Paul Turok’s  Variations on an American Song; Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty.  Many know Turok from his long career as a writer about music for a host of publications. While conservative in style,  Variations  is a charming piece in a pandiatonic style, well-scored and cleverly paced. Idiomatic in its demands, the work is a fine showcase for professionals; but it would brighten up many a college or community orchestra concert as well.

Nashville and Naxos have once again proved fine advocates for American classical music, providing a thematically unified, but eminently entertaining, sampling of Twentieth Century repertoire.

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